Process Addictions: When a Substance Isn’t the Problem

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By Edie Weinstein, LSW
@EdieWeinstein1

Workaholism and perfectionism are considered process addictions. Although it might be difficult to imagine, they are every bit as insidious and at times intractable as substance addictions and can also carry dire consequences. Although they’re both legal and in most cases socially acceptable, the dynamics can be a doorway to drug and alcohol abuse. Just like substances, each of them stimulates the reward system in the brain, leading the person to engage in activities that seem beyond their control.

Just as no one intends to become addicted to a substance, neither does anyone consciously choose to become hooked on the high of work or play, or a job exceedingly well done, to the detriment of their well-being. As in any other addiction, these meet needs for satisfying physical desires, self-soothing, and mood management. Some are a reaction to trauma or mental health diagnoses, while others are learned patterns from family of origin.

Workaholism is the pervasive idea that we are primarily worth what we achieve and success is measured by time spent in productive activity. In American culture, taking time off is often comparable to slacking off. Working 12-hour days isn’t uncommon. Adding long commutes and family responsibilities to the mix creates a life dangerously out of balance.

The rewards of overwork are numerous. Salary is a motivating factor, as is praise for having a strong work ethic.

The Drive to Achieve Is Multi-Generational

Take the example of a middle-aged woman whose father worked “crazy hours,” according her mother, to support the family. She observed that he sacrificed rest and recreation to bring home the paycheck each week, although he was a fully present and loving parent when he was home. As a result, she adopted his work ethic and emulated the pattern out of fear of not being able to support herself. The result was a series of medical challenges, ranging from hypertension and shingles to kidney stones and a heart attack. It took these wake-up calls for her to recognize the severity of the addiction to work and the reasons she carried on the family legacy.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to the U.S. In Japan, there’s a condition known as karoshi or “death by overwork.” People in their 20s and 30s are dying on the job from unreasonable expectations for productivity.

According to the International Labor Organization, karoshi is considered a “sociomedical term that refers to fatalities or associated work disability due to cardiovascular attacks (such as brain strokes, myocardial infarction, or acute cardiac failure) aggravated by a heavy workload and long working hours.” This phenomenon was first identified in Japan, and the term is now adopted internationally.

Enter Workaholics Anonymous (WA) — a 12-step program with the same mission as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, substituting compulsive work for substances. In-person and online meetings are available for those who choose to engage in recovery.

Workaholism and Perfectionism Go Hand in Hand

A related process addiction is perfectionism, which can render a person emotionally paralyzed and indecisive if they don’t meet the sometimes impossibly high standards they set for themselves. Some who exhibit these tendencies think if they’re not performance-oriented, they’ll be labeled as a failure.

A professional woman shares that she recognizes an aspect of herself that she refers to as “Perfectionista,” who she describes as polished and accomplished; sweet, kind and caring; loving and compassionate; creative and fun; positive and intuitive; reliable and responsible; intelligent; and articulate. What’s wrong with these qualities? In general, nothing at all. But when she holds herself to such unreasonably high standards, she becomes too stringent and doesn’t allow for full human expression, because she doesn’t always embody those fine features and misses the mark.

She relates an experience in graduate school in which a friend replied to something she said that seemed self-critical: “I have this image of you standing over yourself with a whip. When are you going to put it down?” Thirty-some years later, she still needs reminders. She laughs when recalling a poster near the time clock at one of her jobs that read: “The beatings will continue until morale improves around here.”

The Line Between Work and Overwork

Both of these addictions have something else in common. While it’s possible to avoid substance use, unless you’re independently wealthy, you have to work to make a living. And there are standards to be met to maintain employment, contribute to society’s well-being, sustain relationships, and maintain good health. Triggers are ever-present.

So where’s the line between work and overwork, between having reasonable standards and being harshly self-critical if they aren’t met consistently? Do a self-evaluation often that asks:

  • Am I basing my sense of worth and value on the benchmarks I reach?
  • Do I concern myself excessively with the “grades” on my life’s symbolic report card?
  • Do I consider myself a failure if I make mistakes?
  • How can I avoid burnout and create balance in my life?
  • How can I be mindful of my tendency to overwork?
  • Can I turn off the mental chatter that drones, “Not enough, not enough, not enough?”
  • How did my role models exemplify work-life balance?

Tips for Recovery from Workaholism and Perfectionism

If you identify with the characteristics of a workaholic or a perfectionist, there’s a lot you can do to get support and begin the process of recovery:

  • Have a reliable group of people in your life to act as a sounding board for safely unpacking your metaphorical baggage. Have them remind you if you’re overworking.
  • Go to WA meetings.
  • Remember that when you moved from crawling to walking, you likely fell a few times before you were off to the races.
  • Make a list of all the things you’ve learned to do well, from tying your shoes to driving a car. Don’t minimize your accomplishments.
  • If your work puts you in the public eye or online, Google your name and see how many times it comes up to see your accomplishments and accept them as well done.
  • Ask yourself if you would speak to your loved ones the way you speak to yourself. If you did, you’d probably have far fewer friends.
  • Take some time to simply be, which can be hard for those addicted to working.
  • Enjoy your favorite relaxing sober activities.
  • Engage in good self-care, which includes improved sleep, healthy meals, and supportive companions.
  • Say “yes” when you mean “yes” and “no” when you mean “no.”
  • Let nature be your teacher as you observe and accept that change occurs at a slow pace.
  • Allow yourself to accept praise for a job well done.
  • Although multitasking is considered desirable, focus on one activity at a time, as often as possible.
  • Know that mistakes, like relapse, are reset buttons signaling a time to begin again with a fresher perspective. They are learning experiences, each and every one.
  • Recognize that you’re perfectly imperfect.

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